KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – It turned out the men’s basketball team handled Chris Lofton fairly well.
Temple limited the National Player of the Year candidate to just 10 points on 1 of 8 shooting Saturday against No. 7 Tennessee. Most of Lofton’s points came at the free throw line, where he sank all eight shots he attempted.
It was the other Volunteers that did in the Owls.
JaJuan Smith led four Vols in double-digit scoring, notching a game-high 15 points. Ramar Smith scored 14 points and Wayne Chism chipped in with 11.
That was more than enough to send the Owls home with an 80-63 loss in their season opener, played before 21,817 fans at the recently renovated Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I think we made a special point of saying ‘Let’s really guard Lofton and not let him get any decent looks,'” coach Fran Dunphy said. “I thought we did a pretty good job on Lofton, but if they were a one-man team, that’d be great.”
Lofton wasn’t the only shooter to struggle. The Owls’ top scoring threats, Dionte Christmas and Mark Tyndale combined to hit just 7 of 26 shots from the floor. Christmas scored 12 points, but they all came in the second half. Tyndale contributed 11.
In addition to their shooting woes – the Owls (0-1) shot 39 percent – they couldn’t solve the press Tennessee (1-0) employed, turning the ball over 23 times. Several of those turnovers came on inbound passes.
“We just got a little rattled,” Christmas said. “Those guys are moving all over the place. They had a great defender on the ball, disrupting the passer. I think that’s the biggest reason we had a lot of turnovers.”
Lavoy Allen, a freshman forward, provided one of the lone bright spots for the Owls, who have now dropped six of their last seven season openers. Allen scored eight points on 5 of 7 shooting and collected nine rebounds and three assists.
“He showed us that he could play on this level,” Christmas said. “I’m proud of him for that.”
The rebounds are particularly beneficial, given the Owls’ struggles on the glass last season. The battle of the boards was nearly even, with the Vols taking a 40-37 edge.
Allen scored six of his points within the game’s first five minutes as the Owls jumped to an early 14-9 lead. But two fouls landed him on the bench eight minutes into the game, and Christmas joined him a couple minutes later. When they both re-entered the game, with 5:27 remaining in the first half, Tennessee had built a 31-19 lead, which the Owls would not surmount.
“Two of our best players got in foul trouble early and that took a lot away from our run and our energy that we had,” Tyndale said.
The Vols capped the half in style, with Josh Tabb dunking the ball at the buzzer to send Tennessee into halftime with a 39-24 lead.
Two minutes into the second half, Temple put together an 8-2 run to pull within 44-34, but that would be as close as they could get. The Vols followed that run with one of their own, scoring 11 straight points to establish a commanding 55-34 lead with 12:07 to go.
Christmas said he was impressed with the way Tennessee never relented on its defensive pressure.
“We didn’t prepare as well as we should have for that and [those] guys came out and played defense the whole game,” he said. “They played everybody the same way. Not just me. Not just Mark. They played everybody like that.
“I think if we would have played with our ‘A’ game, we could have come out with a win. We didn’t. We came in with our ‘C’ game. We weren’t as aggressive as them. We didn’t have as much enthusiasm as them.”
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.